Sunday, 25 November 2012


I was inspired to write this blog by a ‘Big Issue’ seller in a doorway of Edinburgh’s Waverley railway station. The Big Issue is a magazine sold by and for the homeless. This particular man looked so forlorn; it was such a dank, dreek and cold evening, even by Scottish standards, that I could not walk by on the other side. It is, I am very afraid to say, a long time since I have bought a Big Issue and I offered up a pound. It’s now £2.50, but a good read.

The cover attracted my attention: ‘What are we without our trees?’ What indeed? We are facing in the UK and in Europe the rapid spread of a withering disease of ash trees called Ash dieback. I did not realise that 30% of our trees in Britain are ash. To lose that proportion of our trees would be as disastrous as Dutch Elm disease that I recall from my 1970s childhood.

The UK government has called meetings of its crisis emergency committee, more used to combating threats of terrorism, to consider what can be done. Very little it seems, so trees with genetic modifications survive, but most do not.

I went out into the wood in our garden and found that we do have a much higher number of ash than I imagined. They all seem fine at the moment and as we are isolated, may be spared. We used to live in a delightfully wooded area called Ashridge, which as the name suggests, might be sadly and severely affected by the impending disease.

There have been heroic protests in the past, sometimes to save a single, prominent tree or a much-loved wood. The Pollok M77 protest was one such stand. As the Big Issue says, and I agree, quite apart from their commercial and environmental value, trees are a part of our sense of place and being. They feed our soul. To punch such a big hole in the fabric of everyday landscapes drains our spirits and lowers the mood. In a time where resilience and confidence is needed so much, this blow may have an even more disheartening result than we may now realise. We must do what we can, even if it is re-planting other species in the gaps that are left.

We need to do this for all of us, not least for the magazine seller in the doorway who may just now be homeless. We need as much hope as we can get.

David Jackman

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Gardens - revisited

A few months ago I blogged about a forthcoming new attraction in Singapore—the Gardens by the Bay—a biodiversity exhibition under domes such as those that have become familiar through the UK’s Eden Project. The expansive confidence of the enterprise in Singapore’s downtown is undeniable, including a cloud dome and a flower garden boasting blooms from every continent.  Just opened now, I have been able to walk around the first phase and wonder at the engineering feats as well as the splendour of the natural flora on show.

The striking centre-piece of the gardens are some false super-trees constructed out of steel, like something from a fantasy movie and intertwined with a variety of real trees and saprophytes. The engineering is awesome, just as the giant framework of the skeletal domes also stretch into the sky. They seem to be straining at the very limit of human endeavour, holding up immense structures that protect the biospheres.  It is a metaphor, I thought, for the decisions we are making right now about sustainability. Either we are straining at the edges but will be able to extend technology so that it can protect and enhance the environment or we have reached the limits of what is humanly possible (typified by these super-rich city states of Singapore and the Gulf) and will find ourselves soon falling back, overcome by the strain. I wonder which it will be?

The really interesting aspect of the Gardens is the highly educational presentations and displays that every visitor has to pass through setting out the facts of global warming and explaining what each person can do. I did not know, for example, that human beings breath in 0.8 kg of oxygen per day on average, while we breathe out 1 kg of carbon dioxide per day—so we are on a losing wicket right from the start! While nature’s carbon cycles potentially balance out, man’s additions to greenhouse gasses could add up to 5'C this century cumulatively and exponentially. We can argue projections but there’s no doubting the power of the overall story being told.

Great efforts have been made to make these gardens carbon neutral (let’s not ask about the embedded carbon in the physical structures) but like our planet, what we do next and how the many thousands of visitors respond make the difference to the outcome, or at least the next pages, of that crucial story.

David Jackman